What John Berger would say about Beyoncé
Beyoncé’s photo announcing her pregnancy has become the most-liked photo in Instagram history. Why is it relevant?
In my first editor’s note, I had imagined writing (slightly) sentimentally about returning to Lounge after five years. That has been outplayed by the crushing urgency of a piece of social media news. Last week, Beyoncé announced she was pregnant with twins. The photograph above is now the most-liked post in Instagram history: 10.1 million at the time of going to press.
The first in a series of images the singer released across her own platforms, the photograph recruits every art historical trope of fertility and femininity. Beyoncé has always been meticulous about the image she presents of herself—in the past she has modelled herself on Elizabeth I, servicing the “Queen Bey” tag. But she is no longer content with the regal image she has built over the years with a complex and subliminal system of signs. Here her expression is commanding but calm. The lowered camera angle gives her beatific proportions. She wears no jewellery. Flowers rise behind her to form a halo. Here, she is a goddess.
The rest of the shoot effectively communicates Beyoncé’s extraordinary capabilities. There are pictures of her buoyant underwater—in one of them she is upside down!
In the final episode of Ways Of Seeing, broadcast by the BBC in 1972 (I watch these on YouTube), John Berger, the renowned English art critic who died last month, discusses how the goddesses of art history became the models of contemporary advertising. He urges viewers to deconstruct commercial imagery. Victoria’s Secret launched five years after the episode was telecast but several of their shoots even today—in the way the models are framed, the way they interact with each other and the viewer—appropriate Botticelli or Ruben’s depictions of The Three Graces. One of Berger’s pet themes is the male gaze; how male artists painted female nudes for their own pleasure and the pleasure of the male viewer.
It is hard to ignore how, over the last two years, Beyoncé has become an increasingly politically relevant voice. Her single Formation (2016) was unapologetic in its embrace of black culture. Her Super Bowl performance paid homage to the Black Panthers movement. Text by the half-Somali poet Warsan Shire accompanied the release of these images; the shoot itself was done by Awol Erizku, a 28-year-old Ethiopia-born multimedia artist.
The world jumped to like, share and comment on the news because it is a message of hope in bleak times. The Twitter office told me there were half-a-million tweets about #beyoncetwins within 45 minutes of her announcement. Globally, conversation spiked at 17,000 tweets
There are multiple messages here. Everybody’s beloved Beyoncé can survive a public fissure in her marriage and emerge doubly pregnant; she can procreate as America self-destructs; she can be the first woman to headline Coachella—she hasn’t announced plans of cancelling her spot on the highest-grossing music festival in the world this April; she will not let childbirth come in the way of a professional milestone.
In one of the photos in the series, she sits on top of a red car. It’s a bright day with blue skies. But the real blue sky wasn’t good enough for Beyoncé: A bluer sky printed on an artificial backdrop frames her.
Beyoncé—virtuoso musician, feminist icon and black rights champion—demands only the best. She challenges Berger’s ideas about the female model with no agency. She is the composer and circulator of her image. A carefully styled goddess of her own making.